Highway 37 fix needed yesterday

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After another heavy rainstorm, Petaluma’s flood control project is again proving its worth. Last week’s storm was the kind that would have flooded large residential neighborhoods around Payran Street before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the $40 million project.

Terracing along the upper reaches of the Petaluma River around Denman Flats has increased the runoff capacity and eased flooding concerns. Another phase of flood control measures will make the river even more durable.

Still, with all of the geo-engineering along the Petaluma River, it still spills its banks in major precipitation events, especially at the extreme north end around Stony Point Road. The roadway was closed for 24 hours around the KOA and several stranded motorists had to be rescued.

These types of rain storms, brought on by atmospheric rivers, are only going to become more common as we adapt to a changing climate. While Petaluma may have to contend with the occasional road closure, our neighbors along the Russian River face a much dire situation, as we saw with the flooding of Guerneville last week.

Closer to home, the recent storm again flooded Highway 37, closing the important artery for the second time in a month. These multi-day closures occurred when a levee breeched, sending water pouring onto the stretch of roadway in Marin County.

Many people in Petaluma rely on this east-west route across the top of the San Pablo Bay. Around 45,000 commuters each day use Highway 37, and that number is expected to go up. Because local officials in Sonoma and Marin counties continue to drag their feet on building housing, many are forced to commute from bedroom communities like Vallejo and Fairfield.

Besides the need to create more housing where jobs are located to ease pressure on the Bay Area’s aging highway system, we also need to, well, upgrade the Bay Area’s aging highway system. It is unfathomable that we are attempting to build a 2020s economy with infrastructure that has changed little since the 1950s.

North Bay leaders at least have a plan in place to address Highway 37, but the first improvements aren’t slated to be in place for at least seven years and they only fix traffic congestion at key choke points. Addressing the major problem afflicting Highway 37, sea level rise, is not scheduled to happen until at least 2040, when most of the route will be under water.

The funding source for the first $100 million in upgrades, from a bridge toll increase, is currently held up in a frivolous court challenge. The bulk of the funding to make the highway resilient to sea level rise, an estimated $1 billion to $3 billion, is unidentified.

Letting Highway 37 drown is unacceptable, given its increasing importance in connecting houses with jobs. The recent storms should be a wakeup call to officials to redouble their efforts. The timeline they produced for upgrades needs to be drastically reduced and much more funding, including federal and private industry, must be identified.

Highway 37 will be under water sooner than we think. Parts of it already are.

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